This is continued from Part 1.
I should note that the eastern section of the Southern Cross follows the Xinwulu river. The river originates from Guanshan, Xiangyangshan, and Sanchashan i.e. the mountains I summitted during this trip (except Guanshan, which I didn’t summit). The Xinwulu river flows down into the east rift valley, where it flows into the Beinan river, which eventually flows into the Pacific Ocean at Taidong city.
I started this trip by taking a train to Guanshan (the town, not the mountain), and spent the first night there. Guanshan is a town in Taiwan’s east rift valley, at the southern end of Taiwan’s ‘rice bowl’ (i.e. prime rice-growing region), and relies on the Xinwulu river for much of its water. The next morning, I got on a bus, which went up to the Southern Cross-Island Highway. The bus passed through Chulai, about 300m above sea level, which is where the mountains meet the valley and is the last place along the highway where rice-farming is feasible. After going through Chulai, the next settlement was Xiama, then Wulu, and then Lidao, where I had breakfast.
Most of the road was in good shape, though there were a few rough patchs, and a flooded tunnel where the bus literally had to drive through the water. [UPDATE 2020: A year later, in 2014, bus service to Lidao was cancelled, which does not completely surprise me given road conditions and lack of population. I don’t know whether bus service was ever restored, or if there is currently bus service to Lidao].
Lidao is a Bunun village (every settlement past Chulai is a Bunun village) about 1000m above sea level, and is the last place with flat land. The people there apparently feel they don’t have enough farmland, so many of the mountains around Lidao have terraced fields. The Boss (I explain who he is in Part 3) claims that the people have taken the terracing too far.
Though the Bunun are the indigenous people, they have actually only been living along the Xinwulu river for about 150 years. Nobody sure where exactly the Bunun people come from, but many believe they once lived in present-day Changhua county. [UPDATE: Changhua county is a flat area in western Taiwan – the part of Taiwan which first attracted European and Chinese people.] As other ethnic groups (both other indigenous groups and Chinese settlers) competed with the Bunun for resources, and sometimes slaughtered Bunun people, the Bunun migrated into Taiwan’s central mountains. Eventually, they migrated so far into the central mountains that they ended up on the other side, in places such as the Xinwulu valley. My understanding is that, before the Bunun settled the upper reaches of the Xinwulu river about 150 years ago, the area was uninhabited by humans. [UPDATE 2020: since I’m now publishing this as a blog post and not just sending this as an e-mail to acquaintances, I want to emphasize that I am not a reliable source for indigenous people history of Taiwan. Do not trust anything I say about this topic, unless I am citing sources.]
In Lidao, I asked the police about local conditions. The police claimed that the highway between Lidao and Xiangyang was impassible – even for pedestrians – that the hikers up in Xiangyang were trapped until the emergency road repairs were done, and that no emergency road repairs were going to happen because the crews didn’t work on Sunday. That was disappointing news.
I was ready to turn back, when I ended up chatting with a local old man. It turns out that he was one of the original workers who built the Southern Cross-Island Highway. And he never left. He is one of the few people from the ‘Han’ tribe (i.e. of Chinese descent) who lives in the area. He told me that the region has been officially declared Bunun territory, which means people who are not Bunun are not allowed to move in. However, since he was already living there, he was grandfathered in, and is allowed to stay for the rest of his life. He lives in the village of Motian, which at an elevation of about 1500m is the last village before passing through the Guanshan tunnel (i.e. the last village for many, many kilometers).
He currently makes a living by growing vegetables, and generally the people of Motian make a living by growing tea and veggies. Motian has no flat land at all, which means all fields are terraced. [UPDATE: high mountain vegetables are considered a delicacy in Taiwan, so cabbages which supposedly are grown at high elevations fetch a higher price than cabbages grown at low elevations.]
He said that when they built the road, their machines and tools were really crude, which meant that a lot of labor was needed, and the work was dangerous. He said many people got injured and killed. He says nowadays the machines are much better, which is why the road repair crews have so few people.
He also said that the police officer was wrong, and that while the road might not be passable for vehicles, it would definitely be passable for pedestrians. Indeed, while I was with the old man, we encountered a vehicle which was going down. I asked if the road was passable up to Xiangyang, and they said ‘yes’. Indeed, on the way to Xiangyang I saw quite a few vehicles going in the other direction. Obviously people were not trapped up there.
Between Motian and Xiangyang, the road was … mostly good. But there were the sections which were not good. The most dramatically bad sections were the two places where waterfalls were spewing water, dirt, and rocks onto the road, and the emergency repair crews were busying clearing the road and diverting the water while vehicles had to pass by. Apparently the emergency road repair crews do work on Sundays. Perhaps the police officer assumed that they didn’t work on Sundays, so he assumed they hadn’t cleared the road yet.
That said, even *trucks* were able to get through this mess, though the truck driver I talked to admitted that the road terrified him. [UPDATE: What I did not say in the original email was that I had hitched a ride with this truck driver to get from Motian to Xiangyang. It is, to date, the only time I have hitchhiked in a full truck. Therefore, I was in the truck as it was navigating a road with two waterfalls spewing water and dirt onto it, with a high cliff to fall down on one side. It is still one of the scariest experiences I’ve had in a motor vehicle].
I noticed that on the upper level of the highway, the official speed limit was 15 km/hr. Not 15 miles per hour, 15 KM per hour. [UPDATE: that is 9.4 miles/hour.] Considering the steep grade of the road and how susceptible it is to damage, I think that’s a very appropriate speed limit.
I eventually reached the Xiangyang police station, where I got the mountain permit and rested for a couple hours (which was probably for the best, since it gave me some time to adjust to the high altitude). I met a Czech guy, who had just completed the trail. He’s a student at a Taiwanese university, and though I talked to him in English, he also speaks Mandarin quite well. This was the first time he had hiked a high mountain trail. He said that the weather had been miserable the previous day, but that he would have had a lot of fun if the weather had been good.
Amusingly, all of the Taiwanese people (aside from his companions) assumed he was American, possibly because we were talking in English.
It turned out that, aside from myself, there was only one other group ascending the trail that day. For safety’s sake, I decided to join them (which is what the police recommended). We went up to Xiangyang Cabin together, where we spent the night.
They were three men in the 50s, all from Hsinchu City. One of them had a bit more mountain experience than I had, the other two had way less mountain experience than me.
The next day … well, I had two options. I had assumed there would be lots of hikers because this is a popular trail, but I happened to be there at an unpopular time, so I would either have to follow the group which spent the night with me at Xiangyang, or go out on my own. The problem with joining the group is they wanted to depart at 3am in the morning, and they were planing on hiking all the way to Xiangyangshan, Sanchashan, Jiaming Lake, and then return to Xiangyang Cabin at around 7pm. That’s right, high mountain hiking from 3am to 7pm without any long breaks. And they claimed they had to do this because they were not in good physical shape! (i.e., they didn’t want to bring their supplies up from Xiangyang Cabin).
I could tell this was a bad idea, and I prefer not to hike at night, but I figured that going with people with limited mountain sense would still be safer than going alone. [UPDATE 2020 / FORESHADOWING: This is one of the life experiences which convinced me that hiking alone may be safer than hiking with people who tend to make bad decisions.]
To be continued…